Spirituality, Art, and Creation
Morning Prayer by Post-millenialist Theologian and Parent of the Social Gospel Movement, Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918):
Prayer for Nature
O God, we thank you for this universe, our home; and for its vastness and richness, the exuberance of life which fills it and of which we are part. We praise you for the vault of heaven and for the winds, pregnant with blessings, for the clouds which navigate and for the constellations, there so high. We praise you for the oceans and for the fresh streams, for the endless mountains, the trees, the grass under our feet. We praise you for our senses, to be able to see the moving splendour, to hear the songs of lovers, to smell the beautiful fragrance of the spring flowers.
Give us, we pray you, a heart that is open to all this joy and all this beauty, and free our souls of the blindness that comes from preoccupation with the things of life, and of the shadows of passions, to the point that we no longer see nor hear, not even when the bush at the roadside is afire with the glory of God. Give us a broader sense of communion with all living things, our sisters, to whom you gave this world as a home along with us.
We remember with shame that in the past we took advantage of our greater power and used it with unlimited cruelty, so much so that the voice of the earth, which should have arisen to you as a song was turned into a moan of suffering.
May we learn that living things do not live just for us, that they live for themselves and for you, and that they love the sweetness of life as much as we do, and serve you, in their place, better than we do in ours. When our end arrives and we can no longer make use of this world, and when we have to give way to others, may we leave nothing destroyed by our ambition or deformed by our ignorance, but may we pass along our common heritage more beautiful and more sweet, without having removed from it any of its fertility and joy, and so may our bodies return in peace to the womb of the great mother who nourished us and our spirits enjoy perfect life in you. Amen.
If we somehow discovered that God had nothing to do with the creation of the world, what would we do? Walk away from it?? Demand a refund? Turn our noses up at it because it wasn't created by the top-of-the-line manufacturer we thought for so long had made it for us?
Or if having affirmed intellectually that God is the creator of the heavens and the earth and having pondered our encounters with the most beautiful parts of nature or our moments holding a newborn baby in our arms and finding ourselves awestruck with the mystery and wonder of life as God created it if God were in fact the creator of everything in the world, what do we do when something violent and horrifying happens in this nature made by God? It's one thing to stand in the Grand Canyon or behold a breathtaking sunset. It is something else entirely to be sitting helplessly in Mexico as Patricia, the most destructive storm ever recorded heads your way.
Many lawyers and insurance companies call horrendous acts like killer volcanoes and human-eating earthquakes “acts of God,” and part of the reason they call them acts of God is because someone somewhere has convincingly spread the theological position saying that everything occurring in the natural order exists and does what it does because God created it all and set rules in motion so that God would continue to be in control, being certain that nothing happens, whether life-giving or life-destroying, unless God orders it. I contend that these are anything but acts of God.
I will have my cake and eat it too this morning because I believe God is the creative agent by which the world came into being and the sustaining force that keeps the world from going into oblivion. Yet I do not believe that God ever intended or intends or wills human destruction on either a small or large scale. I do believe--not that I like it, but I do believe--that there are random possibilities within the natural order that allow for mutation and imperfection.
And just so you know, when I envision God as creator or creative agent I'm not thinking of the God I imagined as a child, pulling great heavenly leavers to release rain upon the earth or stop the rain. I'm thinking of the energy that initiated and sustained these creative processes over millions of years in order to bring the cosmos into existence.
When some theologians think of God as creator they actually believe because they read scripture literally that God created the skies and the earth--the word often translated as “heavens” means “skies,” what you see when you look up where the clouds are and the luminaries—in six 24-hour periods and then took a day off. With that much specificity I'm confused about why nobody reported what God did when God went back to work after God's day off.
What the myth-makers were trying to do with the two stories of creation eventually placed back to back in what became known as the book of Genesis was not to offer a scientific or historical explanation, but to offer a very bold theological affirmation in a context of all sorts of tales of creation involving capricious, sloppy, warring deities insisting that the one and only God there is organized and orchestrated it all in an orderly—nearly rhythmic—way.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
And so that refrain, “…there was evening and there was morning…,” continues until seven days have been established and God takes God’s Sabbath.
Then a different order and a different rhythm in the second account of creation in the book of Genesis:
…when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed humankind from the dust of the ground, and breathed into the nostrils the breath of life; and the humans became living beings.
The Bible isn’t a science book, and we learn little that is scientifically sound anywhere in the Bible, though there are some exceptions such as the recognition that healthy thinking may contribute to healthy bodies. What we do see, though, regardless of our own theologies, is a stirring confession of faith in a God who thought-fully and creatively called the cosmos into being. It’s a worship piece, not a lab manual.
Mimzie Uhler is an extraordinary painter, as are all the painters who are participating in this sermon series on spirituality and art. The work of hers that she shared with us for this intentional merging of right brain creativity with left brain rational reflection is called “Creation.” I doubt that you could have missed its bright colors as you found your way into the sanctuary this morning.
(c)2015 by Silverside Church Delaware. This picture of the original painting is strictly the property of the artist, Mimzie Uhler, and may not be copied or used in any form without her express written permission.
Mimzie was the first of our artists to entrust her work to our care for this series and to me in particular for my study and inspiration. She was also the last of the seven to give me any hints as to what she intended her painting to convey; for the record, I do not have a good history interpreting much of anything abstract—from art to experimental theatre to poetry that neglects to rhyme. I mean, you can call a haiku a poem if you want, but the facts are not blurred.
I remember when I got my older son in trouble with one of his elementary teachers because his homework that night was to write a poem. It was some new-fangled so-called poetry called haiku. I told him the instructions were incorrect or incomplete and that he couldn’t finish his homework that night. I sent a note to his teacher telling her that a page of instructions must have been omitted from his homework packet. Haiku must be a part of some other unit, yet to come, I reasoned.
The sun is ablaze
I love the color purple
Your grandma dips snuff
What the hades is that? That’s not poetry. A poem is like this:
The sun is ablaze
I see it through its purple haze
Your grandma’s snuff is all the craze
Now THAT’S a poem!
You may not appreciate my lack of culture then or now, but in all fairness it takes a while for a country boy to rise to your level of broad cultural experiences and sophistication. I was chatting with my friend Cathe Nixon in Newnan, Georgia, yesterday, and the subject of the first fancy dinner my wife and I had with Cathe and her husband, Don, while we all four seminary students came up. I was out-classed by those three Virginians who hadn’t even learned to appreciate the music of Dolly Parton, IF YOU CAN IMAGINE!
Both ladies had been home ec-cies in college, and the other gent was a well-traveled musician and thespian. After we placed our drink orders—wine for each of them and a diet coke for me—the server brought out soup for each of us that we hadn’t even ordered. How generous! I’d never heard of lemon soup; it looked kind of thin but interesting. The problem, though, was that my lemon soup was tepid. I’d had the same problem with gazpacho a couple of years earlier.
So, I politely asked the server to ask the kitchen staff to warm up my soup a bit. He laughed, as if I were telling a joke, and the other three spat wine. It took them forever to explain to me that those were finger bowls or something like that for freshening up one’s fingers and hands. I was thoroughly embarrassed, but oddly enough not as embarrassed as the three of them. At least by now I know what to do with the hot towel the sushi restaurants bring me before serving the meal; I never tire of how those hot towels soften up my beard and open pores before I dine.
Back to Mimzie’s originally, for me, untitled painting. I looked and looked at it. I was drawn to it because lovely colors draw me to them. Every time I came to the office, I turned the picture to a different side; I knew if I just looked diligently enough the meaning would come to me.
At some point it hit me. The painting was an artist’s rendition of Vanessa Williams’s song, “Colors of the Wind.” I have loved that song since the first time I heard it in Disney’s film, “Pocahontas.”
When the correct answer finally came to me from New Hampshire, I wasn’t miles off. Wind is certainly a part of creation. So, I was kinda proud of myself for being in the ballpark. Beyond the title, Mimzie shared with me some of her ideas about creation, and the rest has been up to me.
Here is where I have landed as of this morning. Most every artistic attempt at envisioning creation I’ve seen picks up on the idea held by the writers of the Genesis creation accounts and others that at the beginning everything was dark and murky; all colors used typically are blacks, grays, and whites—maybe on rare occasions some indigo to suggest the watery chaos that was created early on.
Here with Mimzie, however—an artist married to a real scientist, surely there’s some shared influence going there some kind of way—when God began calling the world into being, behold, there was color. One might well wonder how the gorgeous colors of creation that the human brain began to interpret as color could have sprung from blacks and whites and grays alone. In the second account of creation in Genesis, the myth-maker had the narrator of the story report this: “Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food….” Pleasant to the sight means for me not only interesting shapes, but also color.
A theology of color.
There are many terrifying stories in the Bible—definitely not intended originally or ever for children; and I’m not sure about adults! Scripture scholar, Phyllis Tribble, refers to them as “texts of terror.” One of the most frightening of all for me is the background to the account of Noah’s Ark. One of the Genesis writers or a community of them contends that there was a point in the early history of humanity when God became disgusted with how humanity was turning out—nowhere close to what God had intended when God called humanity into existence. Without much warning, God decides that the only solution is to kill off all humans except for one family in which the patriarch was notably righteousness. The lucky family had Noah heading it up. The Noah family and representative animals were loaded onto the ark, and every other person and animal on the face of the earth was drowned in a God-ordered flood. Evidently the word “tweaking” wasn’t around in Hebrew, which as everyone knows was God’s first language.
Let’s assume for a quick second, and no longer, that humanity truly was as evil as the God of the Noah story assessed; all those innocent animals had done nothing wrong. Why should they be wiped out too?
Quick aside, because I don’t have many opportunities to weave this into a sermon, even sideways: the late, great liberal Southern Baptist ethicist and pastor, Carlyle Marney, said: “The church is like Noah’s ark; the stench inside is almost unbearable. But the alternative is unthinkable.”
OK. OK. I got my chance to use Marney’s quote. Now back to Noah aside from Marney’s perspective, which is well worth a discussion at some point.
God decided to use vibrant colors to remind God Godself that the flood thing was overkill, no pun intended, and that God had learned God’s lesson and would never initiate such a thing again. Too little too late for those who had already been killed huh? Nonetheless, this is what the writer in Genesis believed God said about mending God’s ways with humanity:
I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth. This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh….When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between me and every living creature of flesh that is on the earth.
My theology of color begins with the colors of creation itself and picks up with the covenant colors. God will be about continuing to create life and will turn away from destruction. The covenant colors that God sees every time there is a multicolored rainbow in the forefront of the storm clouds reaffirm God’s willingness to tweak problematic parts of the created order rather than going back to the drawing board.
Then, I sum up my theology of color by jumping from the first book of the Bible to the last. The Seer John whose multiple visions into heaven and his immediate future comprise the book of Revelation. One of those visions showed him this:
…there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne. And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald.
All colors in the book of Revelation are symbolic. There are places in the book of Revelation, where specific colors are quite intended such as the four colors of the four horsemen of the apocalypse—the colors are ticked right off: white, black, red, and pale green. White is victory; evil certainly has its wins. Black points to something that disrupts life, which in this case is famine. Red is bloodshed, and pale green is death.
When the colors that flash as the Seer looks toward God’s throne, however, colors aren’t used; but precious gems are. Emerald is going to be some shade of darker green if it’s worthwhile, and dark green as opposed to pale green represents life. The other two stones depending on the stone itself and the light that hits it could be all over the place colorwise. My view of this, and I think I’m not taking too many liberties since the book is fully symbolic, is that we can expect something colorful and bright when we look God’s way wherever that may be, but the view might be, probably will be, somewhat different every time we look that way. In other words, according to my theology of color, God is not fully predictable, not fully knowable--ever. I’m not suggesting that our attempts to understand God are either roulette or Rorschach. Not anything or everything can be God or God’s work. God gets the blame from someone somewhere for everything form a hangnail to the Holocaust. No! The colors around God’s throne are not red or black or pale green.
I think Mimzie caught some profound truths about God the creator, which have invited us into thoughtful consideration at least and for some if not all of us utter inspiration.
Let us pray: "Colorful Creator, thank you for the artist teaching us to see." Amen.